Red Joan (2019) is a film that pivots between two eras and has been described as everything from a spy thriller, a ‘misplaced’ love story and an anti-war drama. But for me, the draw to watch this Trevor Nunn drama was the leading lady, Judi Dench.
At 85, one would imagine that Dame Judi retired from making movies a long time ago. Yet her acting chops are so acclaimed that one never wants to miss anything that she is in, be it a film, TV series or stage performance.
She has done it all and won countless awards. Her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company meant that she starred as everyone from Ophelia (her break-out role) to Lady MacBeth. She’s played royalty like Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth 1. But she is possibly best known here for her performance in the James Bond film where she played ‘M’, Bond’s boss.
In ‘Red Joan’ the film begins in a sleepy London suburb but quickly shifts as MI5 rolls up to Joan Stanley’s door and arrests her for treason. She certainly looks like a sweet, harmless little old lady. But the film is based on the true story of Kremlin spy Melita Norwood who gets nabbed for espionage late in her life.
Through a series of flashbacks, we meet the young beautiful Joan (Sophie Cookson) who is a brilliant physics student at University of Cambridge. She gets radicalised after a female classmate invites her to an anti-(second world) war meeting.
She’s initially innocent amid a sea of Soviet sympathisers, but she falls for Leo (Tom Hughes) who’s deeply committed to the Soviet’s obtaining nuclear secrets that the Americans and now the British already have.
At the outset, one can’t be assured that Joan is actually the spy being sought, especially as she (or he) is the one who divulged the secret of making a nuclear bomb to the Russians.
Joan is clearly a loyal Brit who genuinely claims her innocence from the charges. However, as the flashbacks unfold, so does World War 2. And once the Americans drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she’s aghast at the ease with which the bomb could be dropped and thousands of innocent lives lost.
Only then does it make sense to her that another world war can only be averted if both sides of the post-WW2 divide are at par.
Whether that rationale can save her from a life-sentence for betraying her country or not isn’t revealed in the film. Nor is the outcome of her relationship with Leo whose Jewish-CP background leads him to relocate outside the UK.
Only the State doesn’t underestimate the intentionality of this woman. But to the end, she believes she averted World War 3, and who knows. Maybe she did.